It’s a miracle!

From August 5, 2015 New York Times crossword

24 Down  Miracle Mets player Tommie

As we approach the fall, baseball is now in full swing (pun intended).  Most of us who do the crossword are accustomed to seeing baseball references on a fairly regular basis.  Earlier this month, there was a clue about a Miracle Mets player.  No one would ever accuse me of any kind of baseball historian, but even I have heard of the Miracle Mets, but I did not know the name of this one in particular:  Tommie Agee.

The Miracle Mets story of one of those that Hollywood loves – a down and out team – practically the butt of jokes among sportswriters, which somehow manages to turn the tide and evenAgeeStealsHR more miraculously, win the World Series.  What made this turnaround so amazing is that it was due in large part to two catches by Agee.

During the fourth inning, with runners on first and third and with two outs, Oriole catcher Elrod Hendricks hit a long drive to center field.  Agee sprinted and caught the ball backhanded, even crashing into the wooden fence, all the while holding onto the ball.

Then in the seventh inning, again with two outs, but with the bases loaded, Paul Blair of the Orioles hit a drive to center field.  This time, Agee managed to catch the ball single-handed while diving and sprawled full length.

The Mets went on to win the World Series that year after placing ninth in the previous season.  Gil Hodges, manager of the Mets credits Agee with one of the greatest catches in the team’s history.Granderson-catch

All of this is somewhat surprising as Agee did not start out as a superstar when playing with the Mets.  In his first time at bat, he was hit on the head by a pitch from Bob Gibson, and was 0 and 34 at one point in the season.  In spite of this, he went on to be one of their best hitters in the National League playoffs, hitting .271.  He went on to play three more seasons with the Mets before being traded to the Astros and later the St. Louis Cardinals.  He died of a heart attack in 2001 at the young age of 58.



Happy Belated Birthday, Herman Melville!

From The New York Times Crossword, July 30, 2015


50  Whaling ship that inspired “Moby Dick”

A day late and a dollar short – I should have known better.  Even the New York Times Crossword tried to give me a clue with the above entry early in the week.  What did I miss?  Yesterday, August 1, was the birthday of Herman Melville, who these days is most famous for his novel, Moby Dick.  But wait, the clue isn’t asking for Herman Melville; it’s asking for the ship that inspired him to write Moby Dick.  Answer:  The Essex.

Now I realize that most stories about whaling ships are not exactly fairy tales, but the story of the Essex and its captain, George Pollard, is truly the stuff of nightmares.  It would be bad enough if his ship had been sunk by a whale, which it was.  It was this incident and only this one, that Melville used as the basis for his book.

After publication of the book, Melville actually went to Nantucket to promote the book and meet local residents.  He did at last meet with Pollard, but having heard bits and pieces about the events following the sinking of the Essex, he wisely kept further questions to himself.  Pollard had told his story to a few locals as well as a missionary – almost like a confession.

Photo by José María Pérez Nuñez

Photo by José María Pérez Nuñez

The story began on August 14, 1819, when the Essex left for what was planned to be a two-year whaling expedition.  Soon after leaving port, a squall damaged its topgallant sail, threatening the ship with sinking even at that point.  Eventually, the ship made it to Cape Horn, but the crew found the waters lacking in fish, so they made the fateful decision to sail on to the South Pacific in the hopes of better whaling prospects.

Stopping in the Galapagos to restock, one of the crew members set a fire as a joke, causing the rest of the crew to run through the flames to safety.  Days later, they could still see the smoke from the fire.  It is believed that the Floreana Tortoise and the Floreana Mockingbird were rendered extinct as a result of this stupidity.

Fast forward to November 1820, when after having successfully harpooned several whales, Pollard and his crew were whaling once again while the remainder of his crew remained on board the Essex to make minor repairs.  Owen Chase, the first mate, was one who stayed on board.  It was he who spotted a whale – by his estimates 85 feet in length – coming straight for the Essex.  In short time, the Essex was ruined, and Pollard and his men returned to the sinking ship.

There were only a few boats remaining, and while the Marquesas Islands were nearby, Chase and his crew convinced Pollard that the islands were populated by cannibals, and they made the disastrous decision to sail south in the hopes that they would meet another whaling ship and be rescued.

Weeks passed, and soon the crew resorted to cannibalism to survive.  It was not an unheard of practice in those lost at sea, but when they drew lots to see who would die next, the lot fell to Owen Coffin, Pollard’s first cousin.  Pollard begged him and even offered to take his place, but Coffin would have none of it.  This particular incident, not surprisingly, haunted Pollard the rest of his life.

After another ship of his sank later on, Pollard was labeled as a “Jonah” and was never offered another ship.  He retired to Nantucket and became the village night watchman.  His story has been chronicled in many books and articles over the years, and Melville himself never could forget the man or his story.  For more of this story, check out: Smithsonian mag

Play Ball – Knuckleball, that is!

From the New York Times Crossword, July 29, 2015

42 Across  Knuckleballer Wilhelm

Hmmm – my family and friends know that my baseball knowledge could never be described as vast, but the name of a famous knuckleballer?  Forget about it!  Fortunately the letters in adjacent clues revealed the answer:  Hoyt.  Since I wanted to know more about what a knuckleballer is, I sought the answer in the most common of sites these days:  Wikipedia.  The first line in the description read (List of Knuckleballer pitchers):  “Knuckleball pitchers are those professional baseball players who have relied on the knuckleball as their primary pitch or who made it to professional baseball based on their ability to throw a knuckleball. ”  Gee, thanks, Wikipedia, that really cleared that up for me!

Further reading revealed that the trajectory of the pitch is so erratic that a true knuckleballer pitcher requires a dedicated catcher, often with a special mitt, to field the pitches.  Another curious fact is the slower velocity allows those who use this technique exclusively more stamina and ability to pitch longer and potentially for longer careers on the mound.  To add credence to this idea, Hoyt Wilhelm pitched until he was fifty years old – with others pitching well into their forties.2872095521_9a70bf1407_z

To delve into the physics of it, an excellent description is provided on Science of Baseball which stated: “The ideal knuckleball rotates about a quarter of a revolution on its way to the plate. Without the stabilizing gyroscopic effect of spinning, the ball becomes aerodynamically unstable, and the raised seams create an uneven flow of air over the surface of the ball, pushing it one way or another.”  The advice of one pitching coach said that there were several ways to hit a knuckleball pitch, only none of them worked.

Given the increased longevity of the pitchers who use it, why don’t more use this pitch? Well, part of the unpredictability lies with the pitch and the pitcher himself.  The slowed velocity if not couple with the variance of stability can certainly land a ball in the bleachers.  The incidence of passed balls increases dramatically with the use of this pitch leaving a rather dim endorsement of it.  The use of the knuckleball has fluctuated over time and it still has its adherents, although R. A. Dickey is the only knuckleballer to ever win the Cy Young award and Joe Niekro is the only one to have won 300 games.

Of course, since a picture is worth a thousand words (or in this case, a video), click on this link to see a rare video of Hoyt Wilhelm demonstrating his knuckleball:  YouTube video of Hoyt Wilhelm.

Don’t Know Much About Geography!

From New York Times Crossword, July 27, 2015

50 Across  Arabian Sea Sultanate 

Score one point if you knew the correct answer, Oman.  Score two points if you knew how to find it on a map.  Stop reading this if you could name the capital and the name of the Sultan.  If you’re like me, geography lessons were a few decades ago, and many of the names have changed – some more than once.  The nightly news flashes stories from all over with nary an instruction on proper geography.  Let’s face it, poring over those atlases can make your eyes roll back in your head.

A few yeamap_of_omanrs ago, I stumbled across some easy to read guides on memorizing geography.  These were fun to read, fun to memorize, and greatly enhanced my knowledge of the various countries.  In his book, Easily Memorize the World Map – Asia, author Siddhartha Sinha offers creative mnemonics for tackling the above question.  He uses mostly straight lines to draw rough approximations of the countries and groups are added sequentially, along with the memorization tips necessary.

With the Arabian Peninsula, he draws the parallelogram representing it, and starting with Saudi Arabia roughly in the middle, his mnemonic for it and the countries below it is:  Say Yes & Obey Your Quick BrainSay [Saudi Arabia] Yes [Yemen] & Obey [Oman] Your [UAE] Quick [Qatar] Brain [Bahrain]  How hard was that?  For more of this as well as the rest of his guides, check out his website at:

Now, back to our full answer.  Oman is a sultanate which means that it is ruled by a sultan – got it?  Its ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said, who is ruler for life, has been ruling since 1970 and is the longest-serving ruler in the Middle East.  He is an absolute monarch with all that it entails, and not surprisingly, the government has come under criticism especially with its attitude towards civil liberties.  It came as somewhat of surprise to me, that despite its location, Oman actually has only modest oil reserves, ranking it 25th world wide for its supply.

In spite of its intolerance of criticism, Oman actually earns considerable revenue from tourism, with its capital, Muscat, being ranked the second best city in the world to visit by Lonely Planet.

National Reading Across America Day

Did March 2 pass by without a glance from you?  It did for me as well.  Much to my chagrin, I have learned that March 2 is National Reading Across America Day.  Why March 2?  Well, it happens to be the birthday of one of the best-known children’s author, Theodore Geisel, or Dr. Seuss.

Recently, on July 14, 2015, the New York Times Crossword devoted an entire puzzle theme to Dr. Seuss.  While I have read and reread many of his books, I thought it was high time to learn a bit more about him.

Theodore Seuss Geisel was born on March 2, 1904.  As a young man, he attended Dartmouth, becoming the editor-in-chief of the college humor magazine, the Jack-O-Lantern.  After being fired from the position for drinking on campus, he wrote articles with the pen name, Seuss.  After a brief time at Oxford, Seuss decided to drop his pursuit of English literature and stick to drawing.

During the Depression and World War II he supported himself by drawing for such corporations as Standard Oil, General Electric, NBC and many others.  In 1936, he wrote Mulberry Streethis first book, And To Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street.  By his accounts, he received well over thirty rejection letters for this manuscript.  Fed up with the process, he was returning home to burn the entire thing when he ran into a friend from college who was working for Vanguard Publishing.

In 1954, he read a report from Life magazine that said that literacy in the United States was declining because many of the children’s books were too boring.  William Ellsworth Spaulding, the head of the education division at Houghton Mifflin, compiled a list of 348 words that he felt every child should know.  Cat In the HatHe approached Seuss with the task of reducing it to 250.  He then challenged him to write a book using only those words and to make it a book that children could not resist.  The result of this challenge was The Cat in the Hat.

While he received numerous awards throughout his career, Seuss received neither the Caldecott nor the Newberry Medal.  When Dartmouth College awarded him an honorary doctorate, he began to write Dr. in front of his name – because his father had always wanted him to pursue medicine.

What PetJust last week, it was announced that a new Seuss book was being released.  His widow found the manuscript, complete with line drawings and brought it to his long-time editor who complied the book, including coloring the drawings.  The finished product, What Pet Should I Get? is being released this month.

And the name we all know him by – Seuss?  Most of us have been saying it wrong all these years.  He anglicized it because it was easier for people to say, plus it rhymed with Mother Goose.  So how do you say it?  Here’s a poem from a collaborator on the Dartmouth Jack-O-Lantern:

You’re as wrong as the deuce

And You shouldn’t rejoice

If you’re calling him Seuss,

He pronounces it Soice.




Higher learning, and Pony island?

Spanish city that’s home to the country’s oldest university

Founded in 1218, the city of Salamanca is home to the country’s oldest university.  Before you dash off any comments – let me hasten to add that it is home to the country’s oldest university still in existence.  The first one was in Palencia but has gone the way of the dodo.  So, the university of Salamanca is also the fourth-oldest university in Europe.  Can you name the other three?  See below for answer (no peeking!)

University of SalamancaLike most institutions of its kind and in its time, it was founded as a Cathedral school.  Its motto is Quod natura non dat, Salmantica non praestat (what nature does not give, Salamanca does not apply).  It was there that Christopher Columbus went to inquire of geographers about his quest before taking it to the royal court.

After discovering America, the reputation of the university was far -reaching with many members participating in the Council of Trent.  Its mathematics department was instrumental in developing the new calendar commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII.  Ever on the cutting edge, in 1580, they had the bold idea of admitting females (!), and one of its first students, Lucia de Medrano, was the first woman to teach at a university.

Other notable alumni include Miguel de Cervantes – famous in his own right once he sat down to write.

Answers:  University of Paris (1150), University of Bologna (1088) – the first university in western Europe, University of Oxford (actual founding unknown, but teaching began in 1096 – it is the oldest in the English-speaking world)

Northernmost part of Great Britain 

Again with this clue, I was stumped – I tried to think of a county or region; I did not think of an island, specifically, Shetland island.  It is sad to say, but when I think of Shetland island, all I can think of is those ponies. miniature pony I am proud to say that as a result of this clue and subsequent research, I have learned a great deal more about this part of Great Britain.

Geographically, the islands (it is an archipelago of Scotland – fact one learned) north of Orkney and south of the Faroe islands.  Or as their tourism site says, “Where Scotland meets Scandinavia and the North Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean.”  The island can date some of its relics back to Roman times, and there is certainly a large Norse influence throughout the region.

While only 16 of the 100 islands are inhabited, those that are show that despite being almost treeless, the stone architecture, some of it prehistoric, still remains.  Mesolithic and Neolithic remains have been found including a wheel house and a smithy.  While the islands were under Scandinavian rule for centuries, it was the marriage of James III to Margaret – daughter of Christian I, king of Norway, which brought about the transfer of Shetland from Norway to Scotland.  The island was part of the dowry, naturally.Shetland-Crofthouse-Museum-720x432

Not surprisingly, since Shetland was part of Scotland, the inhabitants were involved in both World Wars.  In fact, Leif Larsen, the Norwegian leader of the Shetland Bus which was responsible for transporting intelligence agents, refugees and resistance leaders, was the most decorated allied naval officer of the war.

While the island has traditionally relied on fishing and other forms of agriculture for its economy, the discovery of oil in Sullom Voe has revitalized the struggling island’s revenues.  Tourism is still a mainstay.  In fact, Lonely Planet lists it as number six on the list of unspoiled landscapes.


Dream a little dream, Money, money, money! and Crazy for tulips?

Daydreaming type

One of the signs of success of an artist is when a creation becomes a new definition in the dictionary.  Such is the case for James Thurber, whose short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty“.  His short story first appeared in 1939 and was later added to his book, My World and Welcome To It in 1942.  It has been made into a movie twice, once in 1947 and again in 2012.Walter Mitty

Walter Mitty is a mild daydreamer who concocts a vivid imaginary life for himself in all kinds of occupations – surgeon, assassin, pilot – among many others.  The term, Walter Mitty, has come to mean a hapless daydreamer whose dreams accomplish almost nothing.  While played by Danny Kaye and Ben Stiller with comedic intent, the actual message is somewhat more tragic with the life unfulfilled and a rather horrid ending.

Besides gaining a definition in your dictionary, Walter Mitty has also achieved notoriety in several songs and is even a slang term in the British military for someone who impersonates a British officer.

Money source since 2009

Hmm – I was trying to think of some currency, but the clue was rather long for any of the currencies I could think of, but with a few more letters, the answer became clear:  Kickstarter.  Launched in 2009, it is a company of 121 people working in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.  Since its inception, 9 million people have pledged more than $1.8 billion dollars for 89,000 projects.

Touted as a new way to fund projects, it actually allows the creators to retain 100% ownership of their work.  So how does Kickstarter make money?  If a project is successfully funded, Kickstarter gets 5% of the collected fees.  If a project does not make its funding goals, no fees are collected.kickstarter

The types of projects are wide and varied with Art, Comics, Crafts, Design, Fashion, Games, Journalism, Music and Technology to name just a few.  The projects are just that – definable projects.  Kickstarter does not collect funds for charities or other fund-raising activities.

A look today at Kickstarter showed someone with a better light bulb, a mobile observatory and a pizza tour by a self-described pizza aficionado.  Jewelbots – a bracelet designed to teach girls how to code has already collected $89,935 dollars of its goal and Lumos, a new bicycle helmet has exceeded its initial goal and has collected $256,700.  Want to see more?  Check it out at

“The Black Tulip” novelist

You may have read or at least heard of his other novels such as The Three Musketeers, The Man in the Iron Mask, and The Count of Monte Cristo, but even with some exposure to French literature, I had not heard of the The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas – pere.

Black TulipThe story is based on a compilation of two stories in Dutch history:  the 1672 murder of two statesman and the tulipmania that gripped the country during the Dutch Golden Age.  These days, it is considered to be one of the first economic bubbles much like the dot-com bubble or real estate bubbles of today’s age.  In its peak, in 1637, a prized bulb sold for more than ten times what the average craftsman made at that time.

Competition was fierce to say the least during the mania, and Dumas weaves its story into the murder by implying that jealous over the growth of a black tulip led to the imprisonment and eventual execution of one of the growers.  Of course, there is also a love interest, jealousy and conspiracy – it is Dumas after all, n’est-ce pas?

French victory, Spanish songs!

Served with a sauce of mushrooms, tomatoes, olives, oil and wine

Chicken Marengo (despite the otherwise-sounding name) is a French dish consisting of a chicken sautéed in oil with garlic, tomato and garnished with fried eggs and crayfish.  While the dish is somewhat similar to chicken a la Provençal – there is the addition of fried eggs and crayfish.Marengo

The story is that the dish was created to commemorate the Battle of Marengo – a victory of Napoleon in June 1800.  As history states, the dish was created by chef Dunand after the battle of Marengo near Turin, Italy.  As supplies were scarce, he was forced to make a dish with the local supplies available.  Like many legends, it is said that Napoleon savored the new creation so much that he asked for it to be made after every battle.  Later on, supposedly, Dunand, with better supplies wanted to add mushrooms and wine, but Napoleon refused, being rather superstitious.

These days, other culinary historians are quick to add that tomatoes were probably not available at the time, and earliest renditions of the recipe do not include them.  Then again, who are we to argue with Napoleon, n’est-ce pas?

Spanish composer Isaac

Don’t you just love the Spanish with their names?  Who’s to say what their actual last name is?  So here goes for today’s answer:  Isaac Manuel Francisco Albeniz y Pascual — whew!  Can you imagine today’s waiting room with that name?  It would take longer than the actual office visit!

Enough with the long last name – just who was this Albeniz fellow?  Well, to start with he was a Spanish pianist and composer who in his later years was best known for his works based on folk music.  Many of his pieces have been used with classical guitar, although he never composed for the guitar.



Born in Girona, he was a child prodigy from early days, performing at the age of four.  At age seven, he actually passed the entrance exam for the Paris Conservatory but was refused admission because he was too young.  By the age of nine, he was touring Europe with his father (a customs official – how convenient!)  By age 15, he was known worldwide.

At age 16, he went to study at the Royal Conservatory of Brussels after King Alfonso’s personal secretary issued an invitation.  He continued to study with many, including Liszt and Felip Pedrell, reaching his peak in 1889 to 1892 when he again toured throughout Europe.  He lived out his final years in France which had awarded him its highest honor, the Grand-Croix de la Legion d’honneur.



Nabokov novel (not the one you’re thinking!), Charm city!

Nabokov novel

Mention the author Nabokov, and most people’s response will be, “Didn’t he write Lolita?”  While he did indeed write Lolita, the story of Humbert Humbert and his perverse fantasies, which attained almost cult status, the novel that actually brought him to attention in the United States was the novel, Pnin.  If you solve crosswords on a regular basis, you have probably come across this clue more than once – four words for a Nabokov novel?  Has to be Pnin.

Unlike Humbert Humbert of Lolita, who is described as handsome and urbane, Pnin is a bald, frumpy college professor.  He is a Russian immigrant who teaches at Waindell College, which is believed to represent either Cornell or Wellesley College – both institutions at which Nabokov taught.

The story begins with Pnin on a train when he realizes he is headed in the wrong direction.  In the confusion and melee during his travel, he has a slight heart attack, loses consciousness and in his memory travels back to his earliest days in Russia, recalling his mother, the Revolution, and other painful memories.Pnin

Subsequent episodes in the book reveal his awkwardness with his students and colleagues who consider his old-fashioned Russian and behavior out of place.  He is brilliant, but his bumbling English does not always get this across to others.  He does befriend his ex-wife’s son, Victor, treating him with respect that he does not often experience.

Other episodes reveal more of Pnin’s background, including his tragic loss of his love, Mira Belochkin, who was Jewish and incarcerated at Buchenwald concentration camp.  During this story, it is revealed who is the actual narrator of the novel – a sometime friend of Pnin.

Some believe this book to be somewhat autobiographical as Nabokov was a college professor and his wife was also Jewish.  Others contrast the character of Pnin with Humbert as being opposite in almost every respect.  While Lolita achieved even greater success than Pnin, it was still this novel that brought Nabokov to attention.  Flannery O’Connor, the well-known Southern writer, was a huge favorite of Pnin, even writing a blurb for the Vintage edition.


Nickname for Baltimore

This one had me stumped.  After all, how many cities in the United States have nicknames – dozens!  The Big Apple, The Windy City, Cradle of Liberty, The Emerald City, and so on, but Baltimore?  Of course, like many nicknames, the actual source of Baltimore’s nickname, Charm City, has been a topic of debate.

Back in 1995, a writer for the New York Times, who wrote an article about travels to Baltimore stated that H. L. Mencken called Baltimore ‘Charm City’.  Well, in fact, H. L. Mencken did live in Baltimore, but the nickname ‘Charm City’ was created in 1975 and Mencken died in 1956.  Oops!

BaltimoreIts origins were in the desperate need to reform Baltimore’s image – back in 1975, destruction not construction was the norm, and Baltimore’s reputation had little good associated with it.  Mark Kram, a writer for Sports Illustrated, said that “Baltimore is an anonymous city, even to those who live there, a city that draws a laugh even from Philadelphia, a sneer from Washington . . . A Loser’s Town.”  Ouch!

An advertising firm was hired to promote the beleaguered city, and it was this group that created the slogan, “Charm City”.  Ads were run, disk jockeys were encouraged to create music.  Even with all the hoopla, the plan overall was a flop.  This was long before Baltimore had the Harborplace, the Maryland Science Center and the Aquarium.  Back in 1975, there simply was not enough momentum to get the nickname into the public arena and stay there.  In any case, it definitely was not Mencken who coined the phrase.

Prince Edward, and Pleasant Island?

Smallest Can. Province

Perhaps you were a fan of Anne of Green Gables fame – and perhaps not, but in any case, the answer to the above clue is P.E.I. or Prince Edward Island.  It is indeed the smallest of the Canadian provinces, and is one of the three maritime provinces, and the only one with no land boundary — “I’ll take Canadian Provinces for $2000, Alex!”  While it is the smallest province, it is also one of the oldest, and its immigrant population reflects this with its Anglo-Saxon and French history being found in its current inhabitants.PEI

It is named for Prince Edward (who would have thought it?), the fourth son of King George III and the father of Queen Victoria.  Its capital is Charlottetown, and the countryside is largely pastoral which inspired Lucy Maud Montgomery in her novel, Anne of Green Gables.

Now, perhaps you’re a fan of Jeopardy as I am, and since Alex Trebek is a famous Canadian, the topic of Canada is a frequent one.  I know all fifty U. S. states and their capitals, but all of those Canadian provinces?  I have to admit, that I falter in the middle, and fudge my way to the east.  So, here is a mnemonic to help us all:

Billy And Sally Made Our Queen Nervous Playing NearNeedles

Did that help?  Probably not, since I don’t have the provinces beneath them, so here goes that string:

British Columbia / Alberta / Saskatchewan / Manitoba / Ontario / Quebec / New Brunswick / Prince Edward Island / Nova Scotia / Newfoundland

Pull that one out at your next cocktail party!

South Pacific Island nation that’s only 8.1 square miles

Now if you do crosswords frequently, this clue will ring a bell – the island is Nauru.  While The Republic of Nauru is its official name, it was formerly known as Pleasant Island – what a great tourist name!

NauruIts chief economic boost comes from phosphate and its mining, so the vegetation one might expect on such an island in the south Pacific is somewhat lacking.  It is basically a phosphate rock, so it was ripe for strip mining, and during the 1960’s and 70’s it boasted one of the highest per-capita incomes by a sovereign state, but of course, the resources were mostly depleted after that, so the economy has changed dramatically since then.

At one point, Nauru, to gain additional income, became a tax haven and even a money-laundering center.  Now they work with the government in Australia as a detention center.  While it has a police force, Nauru has no army and operates under the control of Australia in terms of its national defense.